The stately medical building at 450 Sutter is one of the City’s most esteemed structures — for a host of reasons. When the 26-story art deco/“Neo-Mayan” architectural gem — designed by the world-famous San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger — was completed in 1929, it became the City’s second-tallest building, a distinction it held until the 1950s. When it opened, it was said to be the largest medical tower in the world. Today, it is home to a range of top-tier medical tenants like the San Francisco Surgery Center and the Deschamps-Braly Clinic.
There’s also the story of how the concept of a building designed solely for doctors and dentists purportedly inspired the neo-Mayan aspect of Pflueger’s theme, since the Mayans were known for their highly developed dental skills, including inlaying gemstones into teeth. (Without electric drills. Or anesthesia.)
And while there’s no denying that 450 Sutter’s design is exquisite, especially the bronze-finished pyramid ceiling in the lobby, Napoleon Grand Melange marble walls and exotic bas-relief carvings, there’s one feature — person, rather— who might, let’s say, out-shine the decor.
“I’VE CAUGHT THREE OR FOUR [THIEVES]. THEY LOOK NICE AND THEY ACT LIKE THEY BELONG HERE.”— Gordon Phipps
His name is Gordon Phipps, and he’s the building’s dapper doorman who has spent the last 15 years directing traffic, playing detective to help people figure out where they’re going, and even capturing the occasional thief. (“I’ve caught three or four,”Phipps mentions casually. “They look nice and they act like they belong here. But they don’t.”)
Phipps is a charming, if elusive, character. Sure, he’s easy to find in a physical sense (he’s at 450 Sutter Monday through Friday), but when it comes to talking about himself, he takes more joy in entertaining his audience than in laying out the facts. Ask the amateur playwright and poet how he became a doorman and you’ll be regaled with humorous references to arrests, a jerk judge and“too many parking tickets” before finally getting the real (maybe?) story that led to his tenure here. His friends, he says, were managing a Nob Hill apartment building and hired him be-cause they wanted someone who could do maintenance work but also keep his uniform clean to give tours to prospective tenants.
Inquire about the challenges of his job, and Phipps will laugh and make a facetious comment about dodging his ex-wife and parole officer before acknowledging that he constantly switches gears: One minute he’s discreetly ushering a homeless person outside and the next he’s helping an elderly woman into a taxi. “We get 700 people an hour,” he says. “And you have to be on all of the time.” The stream of visitors make their way to a around 125 marquee medical practitioners, including some — like dentist brothers Daniel andKevin Barry, and Epstein and Tuffanelli Dermatology — whose practice at 450 Sutter dates back to when the building first opened its doors in1929. And while Phipps may be a storyteller, he’s not a phony. “I don’t believe in handling people,”he says. “I try to really listen and empty my cup and be of service.”
Still, while Phipps is clearly exceptional at his job (which he says doesn’t feel like a job, but rather “loitering with intent”), it is clear that his love of entertaining is a big reason why. Sure, he keeps traffic moving and gets everyone to where they need to be, but while he’s doing that, he also puts a smile on your face while dropping knowledge (“The red trim on the ceiling is because the Mayans believed in blood sacrifice”) or, for the lucky ones,“advice” (“Check the Wall Street Journal everyday because if you’re not careful with your stocks, you’ll get splinters in your wrists and ankles.”)
San Francisco is full of some amazing characters, and Gordon Phipps is one of the best — find out for yourself the next time you’re near 450 Sutter. If he’s not too busy, ask if he’ll introduce you to “Beefy,” the cancan dancer “hidden” on the wall, or show you the tar patch from when smoking was allowed, or share what he loves about the building. (“It’s a pagan temple, which is a gas!”)
Just don’t ask Phipps, man of mystery, about his personal life. You’ll get nothing.